Opinion: Schools can’t be exempt from scrutiny

This weekend’s meeting of the Alberta School Councils’ Association promises to be an interesting gathering.

The conference of school council parents in Edmonton is the first such meeting to be held since the victory of the United Conservative Party. And while parents were generally diplomatic throughout the election campaign, others involved in education left no doubt their loyalties rested with the NDP.

Rachel Notley’s party, remember, promised to hire almost 1,000 teachers and spend $1.3 billion building and upgrading schools. Further, the NDP pledged that every new or modernized school would be equipped with a playground and that $5 million a year would be made available to update aging play areas at other facilities.

Kenney was much more restrained in his education promises, which given the state of Alberta’s finances, seems a sensible position to take. At one point in the campaign, he even drew an analogy between a financially strapped family and the provincial government: now isn’t the time for more unrestrained spending, argued the UCP leader.

Kenney signalled the likelihood of a spending freeze while the new government takes the time to examine where the more than $8 billion spent on education annually is distributed.

“We’re not planning for an increase in funding in our platform, but there will be no cuts to education under a UCP government,” said Kenney on the campaign trail.

The prospect of another 60,000 pupils enrolling in Alberta classrooms over the next few years is bound to make school stakeholders leery, but Kenney’s belief that it’s worthwhile finding out where the money is going, is reasonable.

The UCP leader has spoken about reducing administrative costs and “pushing the dollars out to the front lines.”

Fair questions can be asked about education spending, and no less an authority than Alberta’s auditor general has posed them.

The Department of Education introduced a costly initiative in 2004 after reviewing evidence that reducing class sizes can improve learning outcomes, the auditor general noted in a February 2018 report.

“Despite the $2.7 billion in funding spent on the initiative since 2004, the number of school jurisdictions that met the department’s class size targets in 2017 is lower than in 2004,” reads the auditor general’s report.

So Alberta taxpayers have spent all that money with the noble goal of reducing class sizes, only to end up with a greater number that exceed the recommended size.

Last year, the amount put toward reducing class sizes throughout the province was $293 million.

The report notes that in 2008, the province stopped requiring school boards to explain how they were using the funding provided to trim class sizes. It suggests that over time, boards have simply converted the special funding to top up base instructional cash.

Kenney is going to have to be prudent with the financing of Alberta classrooms, but there’s evidence there’s room for greater scrutiny about where money is spent and what results are achieved.

Just because all Albertans acknowledge the importance of a quality education system, it doesn’t mean schools and their bureaucracy can be permitted to function without accountability and transparency.

All tax dollars should be spent wisely, even when they’re going toward something as important as schools.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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